One hundred thousand more people have joined the Labour Party in the last few weeks, taking the membership to over half a million. Who are they? Why have they joined? What will they do? These are the crucial questions for everyone in the party.
There have only been two significant political events over the same period which could have possibly have been the cause.
The first was the referendum on the European Union (EU) and the narrow 52-48 victory for “Leave.” The second has been the unprecedented revolt of the Labour MPs. The resignations from the Shadow Cabinet and the frontbench which have left Corbyn unable to appoint a full team. And the vote in which 80 per cent of the PLP expressed their lack of confidence in him.
Which of these is the driving force? On this question the future of the Labour Party depends.
The EU campaign was a disaster for the Labour Party. A third of its voters deserted the party and voted “Leave.” This was a three-fold blow: without their support “Leave” would have struggled more than they did; a pro-EU position has been Labour policy for nearly thirty years; and the votes to “Leave” were highest in Labour’s heartland.
The party had run a lacklustre campaign. Corbyn’s lack of passion was manifest and his interventions half-hearted and ill-timed. There is no doubt that his leadership campaign last year enthused and mobilised young people who joined Labour to support him. He did not use or enthuse them this time—either directly or through his party-within-a-party Momentum. It is young people who feel the most betrayed by the vote to leave the EU, but is that true within the Labour Party?
I know that the plural of anecdote is not data, but at my branch meeting this week—where attendance has more than trebled from an average of 6-8 two years ago—the EU was the central topic. Member after member spoke about their disbelief about the result and their anger at Labour’s campaign and in particular Corbyn’s role. There was a strong desire for a change of leader—though no agreement on an alternative to the current one. In this view, Peckham members have been well represented by their MP Harriet Harman and the broader PLP. The near universal turning against Corbyn was sparked by the referendum result—not only was Corbyn a loser, he had undermined party policy.
There is a countervailing view expressed on social media, which is the modern equivalent of the mob, and in the crowds in Parliament Square, demanding that Corbyn must stay. For these people the issues are irrelevant, winning is unnecessary—the only point is that Corbyn must lead the Labour Party.
There are now two irreconcilable projects within the Labour Party. One that seeks to win majority support for a political programme of reform—and which stretches in opinion from left to right of the Labour Party, including Blairites and Brownites, old left and new. The other is a force whose purpose is the maintenance of Jeremy Corbyn in power. There is no other demand, just that. If ever there were an expression of the empty pursuit of power without principle then Corbynism is now revealed as that.
The new members may—like Robert Harris—have joined or re-joined to get rid of a leader who failed to keep the UK in the EU. There are certainly some of them—though there is no sense of a coherent operation to make Labour the pro-EU party. Some may be late converts to Corbyn-mania—though why they were not inspired by his victory last year but are inspired by defeat remains opaque.
The future of Labour lies with its head and its heart. From the big unions—like Unite and Unison—down to the party’s branch meetings, the question is straightforward. Is the Labour Party just about Jeremy Corbyn or is it bigger than that? Are there reasons—like housing or jobs or pensions—that are so big and so pressing a progressive party that wins elections is needed?
I have no doubt that Labour will split. But it won’t be an Social Democratic Party Mark 2, it will be a Communist Party Mark 2. In the early days of communist parties in Europe their task was to infiltrate social democratic parties, to get MPs elected and to gain control of unions. When they had critical mass they split and formed a communist party. The strength of Britain’s left was that that never happened here. Nearly a century on, and in very different circumstances, we are seeing an attempted reverse takeover of the Labour Party. In the end, the handful of MPs who believe that it is all about Jeremy and not about the country will have to leave. They will take seats and some resources with them, and they will have damaged Labour grievously. But they will not prevail.